Celebrating Black History Month, in ways large and small

Clearly African-Canadian communities take the reins when it comes to celebrations, but if black history is a part of all history, then marking the occasion is everyone's prerogative.

CBC's Arts & Culture contributor Nantali Indongo offers up a few suggestions of events and ways to celebrate

This is the official poster for Montreal's Black History Month celebrations. (Mois de l'histoire des noirs/Leona Carthy)

On the eve of Black History Month, I hung out at the Eaton Centre and McGill Metro station asking Montrealers their thoughts on the significance of the month-long celebration.

Despite my big smile and welcoming demeanour in full-on Quebec winter gear, people ran away from me.

Not because I'm black, silly! They ran from me because the huge microphones covered in stickers we journalists carry can be pretty intimidating.

But I did get people to stop and answer. I spoke to some black Montrealers, but the majority of the people who did chat with me were non-black, and mostly white.  

The unifying sentiment in all of the reactions — especially after I explained what Black History Month was all about to some folks — is that there isn't enough being done to publicize and underline that this is an important time to educate and celebrate. 

They all said that it's everyone's responsibility to make that happen, especially elected officials, and not exclusively that of African-Canadians in civil society.

Clearly African-Canadian communities take the reins when it comes to celebrations, but if black history is a part of all history, then marking the occasion is everyone's prerogative.

Acknowledging the month can be done in a vast array of ways, of course, from concerts, dinners, discussions, exhibitions and more.
French filmmaker Amandine Gay's documentary, Ouvrir la Voix, looks at what it means to be black, female, and francophone in Europe. It screens on Feb. 9 at Cinema du Parc.

But it can be as simple as a tweet wishing everyone a happy Black History Month.

Unfortunately, I had to Google Black History Month Canada to land on the federal government's Ministry of Heritage page dedicated to the occasion.

And despite the fact that the City of Montreal is honouring black laureates selected by the Mois des histoires noires committee this afternoon, as far as I could see neither the City of Montreal's old website nor their beta one had a single word acknowledging the celebration of the month. Bizarre, considering that the city is one of the committee's official partners.

Dommage, but community groups and organizers are taking advantage of the opportunity to share their stories, highlight their contributions to society and just have a good ol' time.

Here are few events in the arts scenes that I thought would inspire you to raise the roof for black talent in Montreal this year.

If you're into visual arts...

Check out Symbols of Resistance: an exhibition celebrating the convergence of black artists and their stories. The vernissage starts at 6 p.m.

The month-long exhibition at Galerie Mile End includes illustrations, paintings as well as woodwork from local, up and coming visual artists.

I'm curious about all of them and I'm already drawn to Valerie Bah, Aïssatou Diallo (whose work is pictured above) and 19-year old Gloria-Sherryl François, who has already shown her work at the Museum of Fine Arts.

This exhibition is presented by The C-FAR (Critical Feminist Activism and Research) project out of Concordia University's Simone de Beauvoir Institute.

If you love arthouse documentaries...

Check out Ouvrir la Voix, Feb. 9 at Cinema du Parc.

French, Afro-feminist filmmaker Amandine Gay's documentary looks at what it means to be a black francophone woman in Europe today. Rather than turn to experts to get those answers, she talked to black women she knew to get their personal experiences and their analyses.

The doc is in French with English subtitles.

The focus is strictly on the women: their thoughts as people in the arts and science, as students and activists. Some are Muslim, some are Jewish, some of Caribbean origins, others with origins in Africa.

Filmmaker Amandine Gay talks to black women she knows to get their personal experiences and their analyses in her documentary, Ouvrir la Voix. (Enrico Bartolucci)

Gay's central characters provide insight into the wide range of questions around black female identity in France and Belgium, questions that — especially in France — are not discussed in academia, in the media, or in politics, but are felt every day, everywhere.

It's an independent film — Gay and her partner put their own money into making and promoting it. She fought to get media in France to talk about her film, then smashed records for documentary screenings in arthouse theatres in France, Switzerland, and Belgium, in urban centres.

The film sold out, even in rural communities where there were only white farmers in the room.

If you're hanging out in the West Island...

Check out the Black History Month Brunch, Feb. 18, at the Marcel Morin Community Centre in Pierrefonds.

During this year's brunch featuring Caribbean cuisine, live music and dance performances, you'll learn about African-Canadian figures such as Maryanne Shad, Rosemary Brown and Oscar Peterson

You will also learn about the work of Akilah Newton and her non-profit organization Overture with the Arts.

She works year-round to bring arts programming and artists into schools and recently expanded the Black History Month school tour, which her twin brother Omari animates, to schools in Alberta and British Columbia.

Their work is not exclusively about black arts, but in February they do a special school tour in the Montreal area and this year the theme is Triple A: Artists, Athletes and Activists.

If you want to celebrate BHM from home or need other ideas?

The NFB has a great page of 31 films telling black stories in Canada here.

You can head to CBC Books throughout the month for lists dedicated to black literature, especially Canadian authors.

The Mois d'histoires des Noires committee is keeping track of a variety events on their website.

But of course social media is the best bet — search Black History Month Montreal on Facebook to find original, local ways to celebrate for the entire month.

About the Author

Nantali Indongo

Nantali Indongo is CBC's Arts & Culture contributor and host of The Bridge. Follow her on Twitter @taliindongo.